Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackenzie Bell
Jean Ingelow (18201897)
AMONG the small group of eminent English women-poets that the present century has produced, Jean Ingelow holds a conspicuous place. She is greater than Felicia Hemans or Lætitia Landon, for she avoids sentimentalitythe characteristic weakness of both these poets. It is true that she did not possess in an equal degree with Elizabeth Barrett Browning that breadth of thought, that strength of passionthat imaginative fervour, and that vigour of executionwhich give to the latter the first place among English women-poets, nor had she that peculiarly exalted spirituality tinctured with ascetism which distinguishes the best work of Christina Rossetti. Nevertheless her poems exhibit high qualities of their own. First among these qualities is lyrical charm. Hence it is that her poems have gained such widespread popular acceptance, for, as Mr. Ashcroft Noble has pointed out with true critical discernment, there is no maxim of the critics which finds more favour with the general public than thisthat the poet must be, before all other things, a singer. Jean Ingelows verse is always distinguished by graceful fancy, and often by imagination of the more lofty kind. Though it cannot be said that her range is wide, her pictures within this range are vivid, and her verse displays a tender womanliness, a reverent simplicity of religious faith, and a deep touch of sympathy with the pain inherent in human life which are very fascinating.
She had also the rare quality of depicting faithfully, and sometimes with minute accuracy, the aspects of nature in purely lyrical measures of anapæstic movement. The best example of this is seen in Divided, where the colour of the landscape is rendered in an exquisitely lyrical measure with as much faithfulness as if the poem had been written in iambic lines. And, remembering how seldom the great English poets have succeeded in such efforts, Jean Ingelows success in this respect may, indeed, be regarded as a worthy achievement.
Born at Boston, in Lincolnshire, in 1820, Jean Ingelows first book, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and Feelings, appeared in 1850. This was followed in 1851 by a novel, entitled Allerton and Dreux; or, The War of Opinion, and in 1860 by Tales of Orris. But it was not until the publication in November 1863 of the first series of her Poems that she gained any important recognition. This volume, however, was received with warm praise by the critics, and their praise was immediately echoed and confirmed by the general public. But we need feel no surprise at this somewhat unusual occurrence when we remember some of the poems the volume contained. The very first poem, Divided, was well fitted to attract both the critic and the general reader. For while the critic would observe its distinctive lyrical qualities, and a certain touch of sadness which is often a characteristic of its authors best moods, the general reader, whatever the extent of his culture, could at least understand and enjoy its directness and its simplicity, together with its lovely descriptions of some of Natures more familiar aspects. Perhaps none of Jean Ingelows other poems quite equals this in perfection of music and lyrical freedom, though The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire, 1571, has other notable qualities. Cast in an archaic mould, and full of deep and passionate human feeling, the pathetic motive of the latter poem is handled with an earnestness which is absolutely convincing. This, even more than its high technical excellence, makes it one of the finest of modern ballads. But, perhaps, the exquisite poem Requiescat in Pace is, in many respects, the highest effort of Jean Ingelows poetical genius. In it there is a touch of the supernatural which we find elsewhere in some of her best work, though in a less intense degree. Moreover it is full of that concentrated fervour which comes only to the poet when the creative imagination is fully alive. The manner in which the tender mournfulnessalmost the despairof the concluding stanzas is handled makes the poem irresistible in its appeal to our sympathies. Strife and Peace, another beautiful lyric, calls also for mention.
Supper at the Mill, Brothers and a Sermon, and Afternoon at a Parsonage, all in blank verse, with interspersed songs, belong to a different class of poemsa class for which Jean Ingelow had evidently a marked predilectionpoems of mingled narrative and reflection. In the extreme simplicity of the poems just named we see the influence of Wordsworth; while in their mingling of narrative and reflection with snatches of song we see the influence of Tennyson. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that these remarkable poems are imitative. On the contrary they display dramatic insight and originality both of thought and treatment. All three poems contain striking examples of Jean Ingelows gift in delineating character. In the first-named poem the middle-aged farmers wife, as she chats at her sons house on a market day, is as real to us as if she had been sketched by Crabbe, although, in Jean Ingelows verse, there is nothing of that hardness of touch which sometimes detracts from the effect of Crabbes marvellous fidelity. Indeed, the character painting throughout Jean Ingelows poems is frequently very good. But, as with the similar work of Tennyson, we often feel it to be the character-painting of the writer of prose fiction rather than of the poet. Brothers and a Sermon with its true vein of devotional feeling, exhibits a certain idiosyncrasy of conception peculiar to its author. The pretty song beginning, Goldilocks sat on the grass, which occurs in this poem, is one of her most simple, and, at the same time, one of her most finished efforts. The two last stanzas, beginning, As a gloriole sign o grace, bring before the mind of the reader, in a few delicate touches full of subtle beauty, the change, the almost unconscious sympathy, which, to the eye of the beholder, comes over the aspect of external nature after the first dawn of love.
Persephone is interesting as being a rendering of that favourite theme of the poetsthe story of Demeter and her daughter. The brevity of Jean Ingelows ballad does not admit of the elaboration observable in the poem of Tennyson, nor in that of Mr. Aubrey de Vere on the same subject. But her version has a certain beauty of its own. The Letter L, fine as it is in part, is injured by that diffuseness into which Jean Ingelows facility, both in verse and prose, not unfrequently betrayed her. It is unnecessary to dwell at any length on so widely popular and so admirable a series of poems as Songs of Seven. Several of these lyrics are almost perfect of their kind. Where all is so good it is difficult to give adequate reasons for the awarding of especial praise. I may remark, however, that the first lyric, entitled Exultation, has pre-eminent merit from the fact that in it Jean Ingelow shows a rare dramatic gifta gift of interpreting faithfully a childs emotions.
A Story of Doom and other Poems appeared in 1867. The title poem in this collection, the longest of Jean Ingelows poetical efforts, tells in flowing blank verse the Biblical narrative of Noah. The theme is handled with no little skill, and many of the individual pictures are effective. Still the poem in its entirety shows that the subject she has here chosen is not so well suited to her powers as some others which she has elsewhere treated. She is a lyrist above all else, and although (as I have already remarked) she shows dramatic instinct in some of her shorter narrative poems, such as Supper at the Mill and Afternoon at a Parsonage, she does not show that consummate degree of dramatic power required by the writer who would cope effectively with the great difficulties inherent in such a theme. Much better work is to be found in Songs of the Voices of Birds, particularly in one of these called A Raven in a White Chine, and in the series of poems entitled Songs of the Night Watches. The opening lyric Apprenticed and A Morn of May, the lyric which closes the sequence, are probably the most beautiful. Songs with Preludes, and Contrasted Songs, ought also to be mentioned. Of the last-named poems Sailing Beyond Seas and A Lily and a Lute are fine examples of Jean Ingelows work.
As a novelist, as well as a poet, Jean Ingelow gives token of very considerable power in the delineation of character, especially as seen in child-life. But her work in fiction is sometimes disfigured by deficiency in construction, and by occasional prolixity in narrative. Studies for Stories (1864), a series of brief tales, contains some of Jean Ingelows best work in this department of literature. There is often a quaint realism about these Studies which is very delightful. Off the Skelligs (1872) is, perhaps, the most successful of Jean Ingelows full-length novels. Her exceptional faculty of delineating child life is shown here, and again in Don John (1881), where more attention is paid to the strict lines of plot than is usual with this writer. The dénouement is cleverly conceived and unexpected, so unexpected, indeed, that possibly some readers might be inclined to resent a conclusion so different from that which they had been disposed to look for. Among her other novels are Fated to be Free (1873); Sarah de Berenger (1879); John Jerome: His Thoughts and Ways (1886); and Very Young and Quite Another Story (1890). Jean Ingelow has long been favourably known as a writer of stories avowedly for childrenstories, however, which have an appeal to readers of all ages. Indeed some of the most fascinating of all her prose work belongs to this class. Stories told to a Child (1865) must here be named. This was followed in 1869 by Mopsa the Fairy. Some episodes in the last-mentioned tale are very fine of their kind: as, for example, Jacks voyage from the enchanted bay where lie the ships of bygone ages which had been sent on voyages of evil purpose. Doubtless some of Jean Ingelows prose fiction will live by reason of the real imaginative power displayed in it.
Jean Ingelows third series of Poems was published in 1885. If it cannot with candour be said that this volume is altogether free from the faults discernible in her earlier verse, and if it cannot be said that it shows a wider range, it may be said emphatically that it possesses the same great qualities which originally gained for her and still maintain her wide popularity. We see the same mingled sweetness and simplicity, the same rare lyrical gift, the same remarkable power in the description of nature, and the same profound knowledge of child-life. Her lyrical faculty, her power of depicting nature, and her subtle knowledge of the heart of a child are all revealed in the lovely poem called Echo and the Ferry. Rosamund, a narrative poem in blank verse, is of some considerable length. The scene is laid in the time of the Spanish Armada. The story is well planned and told throughout with much imaginative ardour. Jean Ingelow here exhibits even more than her accustomed ability in handling blank verse. Many excellent descriptive passages and felicitous phrases occur, and, occasionally, comes a note of true passion. Preludes to a Penny Reading belongs to the same class as Supper at the Mill. Some of the interspersed songs, such as For Exmoor, are full of the lyrical beauty which we expect from Jean Ingelow. Lyrical and other Poems, selected from the Writings of Jean Ingelow was published in 1886. Jean Ingelow died on the 20th of July, 1897.